The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church Analysis

Robert Browning

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As the subheading “Rome, 15—” explains, the setting is sixteenth century Rome, Italy. A Catholic bishop lies on his bed, near death. He has summoned his nephews or sons—he is not always sure which—to impart his instructions for his burial in his present church, Saint Praxed’s.

The Bishop’s primary consideration is that his tomb must outshine the tomb of his old rival, Gandolf, presumably his predecessor as bishop, now dead and buried inside the church, as was customary for high-ranking church leaders. The speaker cherishes the idea that old Gandolf always envied him, especially for his beautiful mistress. The Bishop wants Gandolf to envy his superior tomb as well and plans to enjoy this envy throughout eternity.

The monologue opens with a garbled quote from Ecclesiastes about the vanity of worldly interests. Yet the rest of his long speech reveals him as vain, greedy, and hypocritical, interested only in possessions, pleasures, and besting his rivals. On occasion the Bishop interrupts his instructions about his tomb to utter pious phrases that a bishop would be expected to say, but he himself has not followed these precepts.

Gandolf has already beaten the Bishop to the choice location for his vault, much to the Bishop’s annoyance, but he consoles himself that his own spot is satisfactory and that his vault will be much more elaborate. He knows exactly what he wants for every detail. It should be made of the best...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Browning shows his mastery of the dramatic monologue form in this poem. Browning had an early interest in playwriting, and the poem is a compressed play with one speaking role, that of the Bishop. The minor characters, the nephews/sons, move together and function almost as a Greek chorus, with only Anselm named. The reader is the audience. Dramatic irony enables the audience to know more than the speaker intends to reveal, and as the Bishop unmasks himself he is inadvertently didactic, instructing the audience in the folly of worldly corruption. Stage directions and props are indicated through the Bishop’s remarks about the positioning of the other characters and the lighted candles.

The basic verse pattern of the poem is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse); the central device is irony, created by clusters of images, shifts in tone, and the sense of movement throughout the poem. The poem immediately establishes the scene, with the central character calling reluctant listeners around his deathbed. The other characters (nephew was often a euphemism for a priest’s son) seem as preoccupied with selfish interests as does the Bishop. He calls them closer as he whispers his theft of the lapis lazuli from the burned church (he may even have started the conflagration), and they listen as he tells where the treasure is hidden. Soon he hears them whispering among themselves and exclaims, “Ye mark me not!”

The sense of physical...

(The entire section is 514 words.)